Seizing the moment

Leading Laker has found form

Kobe Bryant closed out the Suns Saturday with 37 points on 12-of-25 shooting. Kobe Bryant closed out the Suns Saturday with 37 points on 12-of-25 shooting. (Rick Scuteri/Reuters)
By Greg Beacham
Associated Press / May 31, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — Among Kobe Bryant’s myriad inimitable talents is what’s known to opposing coaches simply as the “rise-up.’’

That’s when Bryant has a defender blanketing him on the perimeter, obstructing his vision and physically preventing him from driving — yet Kobe simply leaps high enough and leans far enough forward or backward to release a perfect jumper anyway.

Bryant rose up against Grant Hill in the final minute of the Los Angeles Lakers’ conference-clinching victory over the Phoenix Suns Saturday night, putting his stamp on a 37-point performance that sent the Lakers into the NBA Finals with a chance for revenge on the Celtics.

Even with Hill right in his grill, Bryant leaped up and away from the veteran forward and drilled a clinching 23-footer. The basket essentially clinched the Lakers’ victory, and Bryant punctuated it with a pat on Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry’s derriere.

“I said, ‘Good defense,’ to Grant,’’ Gentry recalled with a rueful smile. “[Bryant] said, ‘Not quite good enough’ . . . I thought Grant was going to block the shot. That was a fallaway 3-pointer with a hand in your face, off balance. You know, that’s who he is. That really is who he is.’’

Bryant is enjoying arguably the most impressive playoff run of his career, and not because his numbers are any larger than in a previous postseason. He has scored 30 points in 10 of the Lakers’ last 11 games — and moreover, he has willed a team with an injured center, two more inconsistent starters, and little bench help beyond Lamar Odom into its third straight NBA Finals, starting Thursday night at Staples Center.

The surprising Suns would have had an above-average chance to knock off the defending champions if Bryant hadn’t been at his absolute best. He averaged 33.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 8.3 assists in the series while making 52.1 percent of his shots, repeatedly burning Phoenix for late-game baskets.

As for the breathtaking shot that almost nobody else in the NBA can make consistently, Bryant is almost nonchalant about his ability to rise up when it matters.

“I just had to create a little bit of space,’’ said Bryant, who stretched out his arms in imitation of an airplane on the way back to the bench. “I had a good look. Looks like a much tougher shot than it actually is. I got a good look. Got my legs underneath me. I was able to knock it down.’’

Bryant likely will get another four days off to rest up for the Finals. He hasn’t practiced much this spring while recovering from several injuries, but after six previous trips to the Finals, Bryant knows exactly how to pace his body for the two-month playoff haul.

Although Bryant claimed he didn’t care who the Lakers played in the next round, it’s tough to believe he isn’t thrilled by the chance to cap another stirring playoff run with a revenge victory over his franchise’s biggest playoff rival, which sent Bryant home from the Finals two years ago.

“It’s a sexy matchup,’’ Bryant acknowledged. “We’re looking forward to this challenge, looking forward to the test.’’

There’s another reason many expect Bryant to come out blazing against the Celtics: He didn’t play terribly well in the 2008 Finals, his first without Shaquille O’Neal by his side. He averaged 25.7 points and made about 40 percent of his shots as the Celtics finished off Los Angeles, 131-92, in an embarrassing Game 6 clincher.

The Lakers also didn’t have center Andrew Bynum, who was out with an injury, or defensive stopper Trevor Ariza, who had a broken foot. Bynum is hobbling around on torn cartilage in his right knee this time, yet he’s healthy enough to play interior defense and occasionally throw down a dunk.

In Ariza’s place, the Lakers now have Ron Artest. He likely will be attached at the hip to the Celtics’ Paul Pierce in the series.

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